An African Victory, A Powerful Woman, A Racial Truth
Ethiopian Victory Affects the World
Though it may not be noted in every history book, in 1896 the Battle of Adwa took place on the Horn of Africa. The battle pitted the armies of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia against invading Italian forces commanded by General Oreste Baraterie. The Ethiopian victory produced a resonance that vibrated the entire western world for a number of reasons.
For the first time African forces had defeated a European power bent on forging an empire in Africa. And once again in the history of Ethiopia, the victory was influenced by a powerful Ethiopian woman, Empress Taitu. Also, the question of racial superiority was beginning to affect western societies, especially post-slavery America. Many were surprised that an African nation could defeat a white colonial power such as Italy.
The heritage of the victory at Adwa is felt deeply by the people of Ethiopia, because it sealed the country’s fortune as the only African nation to have never succumbed to European colonization. The Ethiopian Heritage Society of North America feels especially charged to share and to keep alive the memory of the battle, not only because of the turning point it marked in Ethiopian history, but also because of the thrusting impact the victory had upon an already rapidly changing world.
Carving Up Africa
During the latter part of the 19th century, the mighty powers of Europe were intent on carving up Africa in their search for empires. The British, the French, the Portuguese and even the Italians were among them The Italians laid claim to Ethiopia. They were very interested because of the proximity of the new Suez Canal and the prospects of increasing trade. They were also interested in the wealth the land had to offer. Their first attempts at colonization involved establishing a colony in Eritrea.
From that foothold they had their eyes on the rich Ethiopian lands to the south. Emboldened by the success of other European powers in Africa, the Italians had reason to believe that snatching the land as part of their empire would require little effort. But their confrontation with Queen Taitu during discussions involving the Treaty of Wuchale should have given them warning.
From the House of Solomon to the Treaty of Wuchale
Taitu Betul was born around 1851 and traced her lineage back to the offspring of the biblical Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Judea, as did her husband, King Menelik. The two would claim the positions of Emperor and Empress after the battle of Adwa. Tradition has it that the male offspring of that union was also named Menelik. Tradition also connects the Queen of Sheba with the “dark and lovely” companion of the Jewish king in the biblical psalm, “The Song of Solomon.”
As queen, Taitu wielded considerable political power and she was a key player in the heated negotiations over the Treaty of Wuchale. Crafted by the Italians, the treaty was two-faced. One copy of the treaty gave Ethiopia to the Italians; the other copy assured the Ethiopians that they could maintain their autonomy. Queen Taitu held a hard line for Ethiopia and the talks eventually broke down. At the negotiations she said, “I am a woman. I do not like war. However, I would rather die than accept your deal.” As a result, Italy turned to invade Ethiopia.
Ethiopia United by the King
King Menelik was ruler of the realm of Ethiopia. A wise man and a skilled general, he had noted that most of the defeats across the span of Africa were due to warring ethnic factions being unable to unite against the white colonials. He vowed that would not be the case for his country and warned every citizen from every corner of Ethiopia about that possibility. He became the leader of a unification of the peoples of Ethiopia and set out to train and equips a formidable army made up of all the Ethiopian peoples.
Menelik summoned princes, their vassals, and other people from every corner of the nation, and mustered a force of over 200,000 men. Queen Taitu herself rounded up 16,000. To provision his army, Menelik was able to gather 300,000 rifles, 5 million rounds of ammunition, 6 thousand revolvers and 25,000 blades for lances. Ample provisions for a formidable artillery force were secured as well. In fact, Queen Taitu commanded some of the artillery forces.
Battles Before Adwa
Two battles occurred before Adwa, one at Mekele and one at Ambalage. The battle at Mekele is certainly noteworthy as it involved the Queen and her troops and their superb tactics. The Italians had themselves well-fortified in formidable, hillside bunkers bristling with sharpened stakes and broken glass. The area was raked with solid Italian machine gun fire. The queen sent a spy to see if a weakness in the fortifications could be discovered. The spy returned to tell her of the vulnerability of the Italians’ source of water.
Taitu ordered her soldiers to capture the water supply. She told her army officials, “You were anxious to get involved in this war. As you know, there is not enough space for all of the army; I do not want lose any of you over friendly fire. Be on guard at the water supply down in the valley. I hope you are not afraid to die for your country and honor. I will give gifts for those who will come back alive. I will take care of the families of those who die. Let God be with you!”
The Italians tried several times to regain their water supply, but Taitu’s soldiers held through each assault. She kept the troops there well-supplied with food and ammunition. The troops were ready to die for her, their country and their honor. They defended the water well for 15 days against the Italians. As a result, the Italians finally had to sue for peace when King Menelik arrived on the scene.
The Battle of Adwa
When her husband marched forth to the north to meet the main body of the enemy, Queen Taitu marched with him. She was commander of an artillery battery during the Battle of Adwa. The Italian forces were made up of around 18,000 infantry and 56 artillery guns. Several thousand Italian troops were allocated to supply duties and the rest included many inexperienced troops and some Eritreans lead by Italian officers. Their equipment was poor and their morale was low.
The battle was a nasty and bloody affair. The Italians fought valiantly but they were out-numbered and out-smarted. One general’s brigade was decimated by Ethiopian lancers and the general’s body was never found. Over 7,000 soldiers from each force died. The battle was a crushing and humiliating defeat for Italy. The Ethiopians drove the retreating Italians to Eritrea and ultimately ran them out of the area altogether. As a term of The Treaty of Addis Abba, drawn on the 26th of October, 1896, Italy was forced to recognize Ethiopian independence.
Empress Consort of Ethiopia
Because of their success in uniting the nation, on the 10th of May in 1889, Taitu and her husband, Menelik, were crowned Emperor and Empress of Ethiopia. Just as when she was queen, the empress wielded great power at court. Their reign and their marriage could be seen as a “good cop – bad cop” affair. Her husband would always prevaricate or postpone decisions and deign to her rulings. As a result, her husband was much-liked, and she was not so well-liked. But, she made all the tough decisions. Because of the colonial wars, she had a great mistrust for anything European and defended Ethiopian traditions and culture vehemently.
The Three Victories of Adwa and Empress Taitu
The world learned at least three lessons from the Battle of Adwa. One, that it was possible for a united African nation such as Ethiopia to defeat a large, European colonial power. Two, women such as Taitu could lead in diplomacy and lead in battle just as could men. Long before women could even vote in Western nations, the soldiers and citizens of Ethiopia accepted Taitu’s leadership. Three, the notion of white racial superiority had been taken down a notch or two and this had great influence on societies around the globe, especially in America where the notion of racial equality was just starting to bubble up through the culture.